Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jesse Jackson's "I Am Somebody" 40 Years Later

Jesse Jackson's "I Am Somebody" 40 Years Later
By Trymaine Lee on Jun 13th 2011 3:31PM

It was 1968, not long after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when a young Jesse Jackson, still emotionally devastated by his mentor's death, stood amid a crowded tent city. People here were desperate for food, shelter and security.

Jackson, who was 27 at the time, had committed himself to continuing King's poor people's campaign to advocate for public accommodations and relief for the needy. He was there that day to give the people what he could. Money was in short supply, he said, and the people that had gathered around him were hungry for so much more than he could provide.

"They were the most rejected, the most impoverished, the most needy," Jackson recalled. "I would look in peoples faces, they were looking to me and they wanted me to give them something, to say something. I had no more food to give them. I did not even have a bus ticket to get home. I couldn't offer them any material."

It was then that Jackson recalled the moment and the words that first came to his mind as he addressed them, a three-word refrain that would go on to change the way generations of African-Americans and poor people would see themselves.

I Am Somebody.

"I said say it with me. I am," he called out that day. "Somebody."

"I may be poor," he said. "I may be on welfare or unskilled. But I am somebody."

The seeds for the poem, I AM SOMEBODY, were born.

"Once I set that table," he said, people bought in, that "where there is life there is hope, and where there is hope there is infinite possibility."

While the saying had long been part of the repertoire of black preachers and ministers, it was Jackson who took it beyond the black church. In 1971 Jackson read the poem to a group of children during an episode of 'Sesame Street' (see video above), cementing it in the pantheon of popular culture. A few years later, he again took it to the masses during the now legendary WattStax music festival (pictured below) in Los Angeles. "I Am Somebody" joined "Black Is Beautiful" as a phrase that went beyond catchy to become powerful statements during a time when self-worth was synonymous with self-empowerment, both of which were desperately needed in the black community.

More than just a self-affirmation, it was a pronouncement, a willing of value by folks whose poverty or skin color or social circumstance left them marginalized and feeling less than. It touched more than just blacks, it reached people of all color who felt beaten down by mainstream American society.

"I think one constant in all of this is that people are always on a quest for self-affirmation, to be loved and to be protected," Jackson said. "With all of these changes we go through, that is a constant. There are so many signs that condemn people to nobodyness. 'I can't get a job because, I can't go to school because, I can't afford health care because, I can't live here because.' All of these abounding negatives, but affirmations trump a negative."

In 2002, the rapper Nas took a page from the Jackson playbook with the release of his chart topping song, 'I Can,' where he implores youth, in similar call and response fashion: I know I can / Be what I wanna be / If I work hard at it / I'll be where I wanna be.

Robert Ferguson, 45, a design engineer for AT&T who grew up in Indianapolis, said that as a young man the poem spoke to him "in terms that I could understand."

"I think that for me it was just a mater of pride," Ferguson said, "and the way that I carried myself." He was a fifth or sixth grader when he first heard the Jackson poem.

But by and large he said today's young people are a generation obsessed with itself and not the collective community which has shied away from the kinds of affirmations and self-awareness that helped others open doors for them.

"I think it's generational. I don't think that this generation or the time that we live in now, I'm not sure that message resonates with us," he said. "I think now it's I can have, I can attain, I can achieve, I can have more. I can get more material things. That seems be the mantra for today, as opposed to I am somebody, I have worth."

And the Rev. Jesse Jackson's stock has fallen amid various controversies and assaults on his character over the years. So, it is likely that as many people have distanced themselves from Jackson as a public figure, they have also distanced themselves from many of his messages, I Am Somebody, included.

But Jackson, who still tends to speak in rhythms and prose, created a canon of phrases to address social needs. There was "Down With Dope, Up With Hope," "Stop The Violence, Save The Children," and perhaps most famous, "Keep Hope Alive."

There was a time when Jackson was viewed as cool, an activist and minister that was as trendsetting as any activist could have been. He was often seen on the covers of popular black magazines of the day, wearing denim jean jackets, dashikis and medallions.

"I remember having his poster on my bedroom door and I remember that, for my mother and my grandmother, Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Abernathy, that was kind of their civil rights heroes. I remember thinking those people were so old and out of touch," Ferguson said. "But Jesse Jackson was kind of cool to me, he had the big afro and the dashiki and he was just kind of speaking to me."

Even this reporter's mother used I Am Somebody as a way to motivate her young son each morning before school, to send him out into the world with a head held high.

"You were two or maybe three. I was just taking you to school one morning and I said I AM," she recalled, "and I just kept saying it until you could respond, that I AM, Somebody. Just knowing that your situation was not going to be the easiest I wanted to give you the weapons and tools that you would need."

"I think it really worked," she said, "that regardless of what the situation was, you knew that you were somebody."

Forty years after Jackson first read that poem on 'Sesame Street,' he says he is still asked to read it no matter what country he is in or what kind of group he is addressing, black or white, young or old.

"Wherever I am in the world, in our country or Britain or South Africa, it resonates," Jackson said.


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